Women in Hip Hop Feature- TOUCH Magazine (2006)
Ty recently said this to me, “The era of strong women in hip hop is long overdue, this creates a balance and it’s missing right now. The image of women in mainstream modern day hip hop is empty bimbos, which of course isn’t the real deal, but it’s what’s pushed out there”.
With this playing heavily on the brain, I headed along to b.supreme, the UK’s festival for women in hip hop. Here I bumped into New York Choreographers Cicely and Olisa, who’ve spent the last 16 years working with people like The Fugees, Mary J Blige, 50 Cent and Missy Elliott. “There hasn’t been much room for the power movement of women in hip hop”, Cicely confirmed.
Ok, so we’ve had some amazingly talented female MCs, from Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Da Brat, MC Lyte, Queen Pen, to more recent times; Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Eve, Foxy Brown, to mention but a few. But this is nothing compared to the never-ending influx of male rappers leaving their mark on the scene. DJ Sarah Love, co-founder of UK hip hop event Kung Fu, breaks it down. “I think we have two types of women in hip hop today; there’s the ones who are just there for aesthetic and then there are those who are actually saying something. It’s tough because of the way that they’re put out there; they’re objectified. But then you’ve got the real women who are holding down hip hop values”.
So why is it that women are objectified to such an extent in modern day hip hop culture? Veteran Harlem B-girl Ana ‘Rokafella’ Garcia explains; “It benefits the record labels to sell sex, sex has been selling for years and it’s the easiest way to push a product. That’s the only reason why. In the days of MC Lyte, there wasn’t much of a commodification from the corporation, it was just us doing whatever we wanted to do”.
According to Olisa, this is due to men being at the helm of the culture. “Back in the day, hip hop was a predominantly male orientated genre, so female MCs felt that they needed to get like that as well”. Broadcast Journalist Jacqueline Springer explains further; “In the early days of hip hop, the aesthetic of androgyny was key. In order for Queen Latifah to make it, it was important that she be taken seriously lyrically. So to ensure that she wasn’t trivialised, or seen as exploiting her gender, she had to wear the code of the streets”. Rokafella supports this by offering a personal perspective; “In the Eighties I was wearing what the guys were wearing and that’s it. To break dance, what you’re wearing has to be practical. I would never wear heals or a skirt if I knew I was gonna break. Those two things don’t go!”
It seems that the change in female rappers’ attire and demeanour over the years is ultimately down to the commercialisation and globalisation of hip hop. It’s a hard thing to take on board, but when it comes to many women artists, they’re careers are to a large extent shaped by men, from the managerial level to the creative side. And men produce things that they themselves want to see.
“I’ve break danced in hip hop videos where you’ve got the girls with their make up and little skirts,” says Rokafella. “And there’s this super contrast to what I do, ‘like ok, that’s candy, and this is some shit right here!’ But what I have to offer is not what the labels think the audience wants to see. You’ve got people who don’t know hip hop, running hip hop, and that’s where our problem lies. I don’t even go to hip hop video auditions anymore, as they don’t do us any justice. However the B-Girl community is alive and well, and it doesn’t need that. Major labels can keep that version of hip hop”.
So is there any hope for the future? “I first started breaking in 1982, and the culture has gotten so much stronger since then”, says Bubbles, aka Hanifa Queen Hudson, Britain’s first ever B-girl. “Back then there were no B-Girls in the UK, one or two female DJs, but you wouldn’t really hear much about them. Same with the MCs. There are business women in this industry now, 25 years ago there wasn’t”. “There’s still a battle, but some doors are definitely opening up”, adds Olisa.
Rokafella however isn’t convinced. “I think that it’s just a fraction of the hip hop community worldwide, which is receptive and embracing of the women who are hardcore with their dance, or great at turntables, graf or MCing. I think for the people who know there’s an underground, they know what’s up. For the people who just watch the TV or go to the movies to see hip hop, they’re lost”.
And so I left, with much food for thought. Until there are more events like b.supreme, as well as a greater awareness of women’s wide-ranging contribution to hip hop culture, it seems we are stuck in a rut. A rut where many people’s perception of mainstream female hip hop is that of booty shaking video girls and superficial MCs, holding a deeply ingrained belief that the only way the world will recognise their music and give them the time of day is by flashing a bit of flesh in the process.
By Anna Nathanson